Sydney buildings from above

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had some effect on how people are living and working within Australian cities, but which impacts are temporary and which are more permanent remains to be seen. The severity of long term impacts will likely depend on how long Australia requires strict forms of social distancing and isolation quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus: the longer it takes, the more people may accept as normal the changes to their lifestyle or how they move around their living environment.

One outcome of the changes imposed by the new restrictions is that it reveals possibilities for other ways of living in cities and urban areas. In this Brief, we examine some of the potential long-term changes to how we live in our cities and neighbourhoods.

Reduced geographical dependency for work

In order to maintain social distancing, people who normally work in centralised office workplaces are currently being asked to work from home where possible. This pattern may become more accepted by workplaces and workers so that having a reduced need to physically access the workplace, particularly those in central business districts, means people may become less dependent on having to live in the catchment area for a workplace. Instead, through the use of increasingly sophisticated communications technology, people may be able to live effectively outside of densely populated and expensive inner-city suburbs. This could reduce housing costs for workers as well as reduce the regularly and costs associated with the commute to work.

The increase in working from home options may also increase the catchment area workplaces have from which to recruit new staff. Rather than sourcing staff from one local city or region, employers potentially will access staff from across the country, or maybe even internationally. Governments may need to consider regulation about how international workers are engaged by businesses operating in Australia and how income taxes are levied.

A changing home life

If people are expected to work from home they will require a dedicated proportion of their home to work activities as outlined in our previous Brief . Appropriate equipment and furniture for a home office as well as affordable and reliable internet and electricity connections will become more important for a home-based workforce.

As control of the virus (either through local elimination or nation-wide extinction) is possibly going to take a long time (indeed a suitable vaccine might never be produced)  people are going to have to be prepared to spend periods of time confined to their home (such as if there are smaller scale outbreaks of the virus requiring local areas to be quarantined). For those householders with access to a backyard and adequate space in their dwelling, this situation may be annoying but doable; for people living in very small apartments with little natural light and access only to crowded public outdoor spaces this situation could become intolerable over time. Depending on how often secondary outbreaks occur (with their requirement for people to quarantine at home), Australian cities may see a reduction in the numbers of residents prepared to live in inner city, high density apartment buildings, with people moving out to suburbs and regions where they can afford to have their own isolated outdoor space and more internal home space.

With international borders being closed for the foreseeable future and the subsequent reduced numbers of new migrants and international students and tourists, pressure for rental housing will likely soften. With a smaller pool of people seeking a home, it is anticipated rents will reduce in the short term. Whether this will result in property sale prices reducing depends on the length of time Australia’s borders remain closed, the capacity of property investors to absorb lower rental income (when balanced against the costs of supplying a rental property, such as mortgage, rates and maintenance) and how unemployment rates progress.

How we move around our cities

The movement restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic reduced people’s need for transport. Through March 2020 the use of public transport in Australian cities dropped significantly, with Sydney reporting a 75 to 80 per cent reduction in people using the network,  Melbourne reporting falls of between 85 and 90 per cent in numbers using the train and tram services, Perth recording a drop of around 80 per cent in public transport use and Adelaide showing a 70 per cent drop in passenger numbers.

If employers and employees can embrace greater levels of remote working (for those for whom it is possible) then state and city planners could see reductions in commuting traffic, and a reduced need for building expensive public freeways and road tunnels focussed on getting people in and out of cities during peak commuting times.

There was also a reduction in people using their cars, with the NSW government identifying a 30 per cent decline in road use during March.

As movement restrictions are lifted and people go back to work, pressures of car traffic congestion and public transport crowding will increase. Until there is a reliable vaccine or effective treatment against the coronavirus people will be apprehensive about using public transport, so rates of walking, private car and bicycle use may grow for those who can’t work at home.

If employers and employees can embrace greater levels of remote working (for those for whom it is possible) then state and city planners could see reductions in commuting traffic, and a reduced need for building expensive public freeways and road tunnels focussed on getting people in and out of cities during peak commuting times.

In Victoria, Melbourne City Council is expanding the scope of their bike lanes network in the CBD to cover the anticipated increase in people relying on bicycles to get to work.  On-street car parking will also be removed to enable large numbers of pedestrians to use busy crossings while maintain appropriate social distancing rules.

A positive outcome from a reduced use of private cars for work commutes is that levels of air pollution dropped in city areas.

Indeed, research is indicating that the severity of the coronavirus may be increased in regions where airborne pollution is greatest. Analysis of 66 regions across Italy, Spain, France and Germany reveals that 78 per cent of deaths were concentrated in the five most polluted regions (measuring nitrogen dioxide which is produced from car and truck exhausts). A study in the US has revealed that having adjusted for ‘20 potential confounding factors including population size, age distribution, population density’ etc., that an increase in air pollution of one microgram per cubic metre of air resulted in an eight per cent increase in the Covid-19 death rate.

What impacts endure in our homes and urban environments as a result of coronavirus will become apparent over time. Undoubtedly, new patterns yet to surface may emerge over time as people’s behaviour adapts to new norms.